Call It Out

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Yes, I love attention.

Anyone who knows me could tell you that. I always love to tell a good story, or make wisecracks and try hard to land the perfect joke. So with that comes a certain amount of spotlight loving, I’ll admit.

I used to blame all that stage hogging on my crazy family.

You try growing up being the fourth of five siblings. Think about it….what the hell does Number FOUR get you? You’re not first or second. You’re not the baby of the family so you miss out on all of those perks. I mean, you can’t even lay claim to be being the problem middle child! And let’s not forget that it wouldn’t be Cape Breton without raising a few wacky cousins! So with all that crowd and all that noise, and no place in the pecking order, what’s a guy to do but come up with unique and wonderful ways to find that misplaced attention sometimes?

This past week, I got a whole lot of unnecessary attention for something that just seemed kind of…well, obvious and decent to do. But the next thing I know, I am on the front page of the local newspaper and being asked to do radio interviews, all the while being pursued by a rabid “fan” base of alt right supporters from the good ol’ U S of A, who come equipped with ugly threats, questionable wardrobe choices, bad selfies because they can’t find anyone else to hold a camera, and shockingly bad spelling and grammar.

It all started innocently enough. It was Halloween eve and after overdosing on coffee and mini chocolate bars all day long, I thought it high time I introduce a vegetable or two to my system, so I decided to wander over to the local grocery store before it closed. As I stepped outside, I came across four figures approximately 20 feet away, standing on the sidewalk. They were dressed head to toe in dark clothes with black hoodies, and had anonymous white masks covering their faces. To be honest, I couldn’t tell their age or race or gender…they were covered in a way that made them pretty much unidentifiable…but I knew they were vaguely masculine shaped and all of them at least a half-foot taller and a few inches broader than me.

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For a moment I froze, and they froze, and my first thought was “aren’t you a lil’ old for trick or treating?” This was quickly followed by my second thought, which was: “DAMN but you’re all spectacularly creepy looking, just standing there and not moving or talking, so I’m just going to get the hell out of your way!” And so, giving them a pretty wide berth, I lowered my head, glanced at the sidewalk and quickly walked past. As I look back, I notice they still haven’t moved on, and I watch as the one in front, staring towards me through those empty black eye holes, motion towards a street pole with his hand. Then I heard the familiar click of what I thought was a staple gun – now, you try living with a reupholstering maniac and you’ll hear that sound in your sleep, too – and that’s when curiousity got the best of me. Yes, it is true that in that moment I thought to myself they are probably a posse of serial killers out advertising for their next victim, and all I have to protect myself is my charming wit, my boyish good looks, and my puny little fists, but I turned around and slowly followed them back up the street anyway. Before I’d reached the pole they had been standing in front of, they had already rounded the corner, and I could hear a horn blaring at them as their hard to see selves must have dodged traffic crossing the busy street.

So I got to the pole and I glanced up high and…I felt my heart sink and my blood pressure start to rise. There, in bold black letters on the stark white sheet were the words “It’s OK to be white”. Instinctively, I reached for it, ripped it down, and crumpled it into a ball, as I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Then I ran up the street to where I saw the foursome headed before they had disappeared. I looked frantically around, unsure what I would do if I found them, but knowing I was angry and that I had to confront them and wave this stupid crumpled paper in my hand in their stupid blank, hidden faces and say “THIS? This right here? It’s WRONG”.

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No. More. Hate.

A few weeks ago, I took part in what’s become something of a tradition for some friends and I – a sneak preview during Pay What You Can Night at Neptune Theatre, where, for $5 dollars, a small donation to the Food Bank, and a 2 hour plus wait outside in all kinds of weather, you can see some very talented people put on some energetic, thought provoking and wildly entertaining performances for basically a steal. This particular night was for their take on La Cage Aux Folles. Being a fan of the movie “The Birdcage, and the hilarious performances of Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, and Hank Azaria, I was eager to see the original stage production on which that movie was based. As we settled into our seats, I couldn’t help but notice, with a bit of disappointment, that the crowd seemed smaller than usual. I could also see, aside from a few exceptions, the audience appeared mostly straight and decidedly senior-ish in age. In the row behind us, however, I spotted two young gay men, one with his arm wrapped fiercely around the other, as he laughed a bit too loud, while his friend looked warily about as he sat stiff and ram rod straight in his seat. As I caught his gaze, his eyes suddenly grew alarmingly wide and he appeared frozen as he stared back. We’re actually about to watch a love story about drag queens, I thought, and this poor guy is afraid to look gay! Giving him a slight smile and a nod, I could see him exhale and relax slightly as the lights slowly faded and the music came up.

As the “girls” first took the stage, I could hear a smattering of uncomfortable laughter amongst the audience, and worried, for a moment, the play would somehow “cater” to this predominantly straight crowd. That they would simply titillate the audience and give a wink and a nudge their way with the very idea of a man – who is clearly, by all appearances, still a man -in a dress and high heels. And as a huge fan of that classic diva RuPaul, and in an age when RuPaul’s Drag Race is perhaps by far the most compelling hour on televisions week after week, I felt an urge to stand and shout to the rooftops for the rights of these queens to sashay and shante their way across this or any other stage – when, suddenly, the nervous whispers and giggles soon erupted into joyous, heartfelt laughter. Clearly the love and affection the two leads displayed for one another was soon almost palpable, and the romantic storyline that culminated in a passionate embrace and deep kiss at the end of the play resulted in the biggest standing ovation I’ve yet seen at this fine theatre. Turning around to give my fellow ‘mos a mental high-five in the row behind, I found they were far too busy macking down on one another (to which, if I’m not mistaken, they were receiving an ovation for as well!. And as corny as it might sound, I remember this warm feeling settling over me as I revelled in the warmth and acceptance felt all around. Thinking back, this was one of the best nights I’d had in the GAYborhood in a while.

On the contrary, one of the worst experiences in the gayborhood happened about a year or so ago. My boyfriend and I were at Pogue Fado, a local Irish club I’d spent many hours of drunken debauchery and a good portion of my pay cheque in years past (the night my friend Elaine and I drank vodka and red bull til closing while I helped her maneuver about on crutches with a broken ankle while singing and celtic dancing is STILL legendary!) This particular night, we’d stopped by to catch the last act of some cover band I was a fan of, and stayed to have a few ciders and draught and to dance away admist a fun, friendly, and very crowded dance floor. And so indeed, through the course of the night, we laughed loudly, drank (to be fair) a rather large quantity of alcohol, and danced our way to a sweat soaked frenzy, all the while making friends out of our fellow dancers along the way (so much so that one girl was so completed enamored with Shawn that once he excused himself for the washroom she said “um, you sooooo don’t deserve that guy!” When I asked why she said “because you’re not enthusiastic enough….LOOK at how much fun he is!” So when he came back I tried to be my enthusiastic best, to which she whispered “nope, still not good enough!)

Now, I love dancing with Shawn – he’s a great dancer, with a very fast, energetic, and carefree style, and being 6 feet tall with a football player’s build, seeing his moves in action can be quite a sight to behold. And beholding this sight that particular night were a couple of tall, burly bouncers on the far side of bar. I whispered to Shawn that perhaps we should take a break, but he glanced in the direction I was looking, laughed, and gave me a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek said “don’t be silly, it’s cool, we’re just having fun!” But literally seconds later, one of the watchful bouncer was at his side, tapping him on the shoulder and motioning us towards the door. Shawn asked f there was a problem, but the stern-faced bouncer kept repeating “you just need to follow me sir”. Once at the door, he told us we had to leave for the night. When pressed for an explanation as to why, he wouldn’t give one, and just insisted, more heatedly, that if we wanted to be able to come back another night then we needed to leave RIGHT NOW. When Shawn posed the question “Answer me thiis….are you asking me to leave because you think I’ve had too much to drink, or as you asking me to leave because I’m gay? ” He received only a silent, stone faced reply. But that stone face? It spoke volumes.

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Bus People

I watched as the pretty blonde girl with the heavy eye makeup and the strategically ripped and overly tight rock t-shirt searched frantically through her oversized purse, with an ever increasing look of panic on her face.

“I know I put it in here somewhere” she muttered, just under her breath.  “For real?” asked her raven haired friend in the fishnet gloves.  “You know what you’re like when you’re rushin’.  You ALREADY forgot the mix!”   “No, no,” said the blonde girl, slumping back in her seat “I thought for sure I’d packed it.  For the concert.  You know, just in case!”

“Hmmm..” said fishnet girl, clearly brainstorming, although from the look on her face, this heavy thinking was causing her a great deal of strain.  “Well, my cousin’s girlfriend’s sister’s best friend works in the Shoppers pharmacy.  Or is doing some placement through Compu College or something.   Maybe she’s got some pull and they can call over to your pharmacy back home and you can pick up some up there?  Or loan you one at least anyway?  If you explain it all.  You know, just in case?  I mean it IS Metallica!”

“Yeah, maybe,” said the blonde girl, wide eyed, a serious look crossing her face “Cuz I remember that time my sister went to one of these concerts without HER birth control and”  shaking her head “NOT good.”

Wow, I thought, Who knew Metallica were so well known for their baby making?

That’s  just one example of a not so unusual conversation one might overhear as they traverse the wilds that is our public transportation system.   A social experiment to the nth degree, riding the bus is not for the faint hearted or the easily disturbed.  In fact, one needs tolerance, understanding, and a damn good sense of humour if they choose to face their fellow Haligonians on this battlefield on wheels.

Growing up in Whitney Pier and partaking in that community’s twisted version of a “school bus”, you might say I was born ready to take on any challenges HRM Transit could throw my way.  Back in the day, we’d be crammed into these small overcrowded and noisy buses,  long past any hope or prayer of ever passing a safety inspection, and shuttled off at breakneck speeds towards our falling down school of destination.  Halifax has its own big boy version of the Pier Bus.  It’s called the #80, and it makes a slow, plodding journey from Downsview Mall in Sackville to Scotia Square downtown, and back again.  The #80 is almost inevitably the oldest bus on the road, with heaters that won’t work in the winter and windows that won’t open in the summer.  The seats are often covered with graffiti and have large rips and a faint unpleasant odor.  But that’s when you can find a seat, as it’s often full to capacity with many people standing and the driver constantly screaming “Move to the Back! Move to the Back!” like some crazed mantra only he knows.  It’s passengers truly come from all walks of life, so as you look around you’ll find guys in suits and ties while others wear ripped jeans and dirty hoodies, and girls in high heels and high fashion, while others sport  pajama pants and dyed purple hair.   And retirees, lots of retirees, usually hard of hearing yet eager to chat to anyone in their vicinity, yelling things from “Back in my day, we used to have to walk 10 miles to a bus stop” to  “:Hey you!  Yeah you over there!  Are you a boy or a girl under all that!  By the Jesus who can tell anymore!”

I figure if you’re taking the #80 without looking at any and every other mode of transportation, including walking, bicycling, carpooling, and at least one serious attempt at sprouting wings and flying, then it’s likely you’ve almost certainly given up on life and are now very open to the concept of hell on earth.  Yes kids, it’s that  bad.

Now the #81, another frequent ride of mine, exists on the opposite end of the spectrum.  It’s buses are usually shiny and new, at best a half full maybe, mostly lorded over by young urban professionals making their way from the burbs.   Most are equipped with blue tooths, so although there’s often the low murmur of conversation, it’s not happening ON the bus, but rather with whomever’s speaking on one’s ear.  And let me tell you, it’s a bit unnerving to see all those talking heads talking at once.

The #17 is the Saint Mary’s bus, and like your typical college student, sometimes it’s all eager and attentive and on a precise schedule, other time’s it’s quite late with some poor excuses, and still others it doesn’t bother showing up at all.  Waiting for the  #17 therefore is usually reflective on how badly you want to get somewhere, because it’s arrival and departure is often truly a guessing game.  Riding it throughout the year really allows you to relive some of those college days.  The kids are usually pretty raucous and loud – possibly even quite drunk before breakfast -in September, but when reality hits, or the student loan runs out, and the exams and the papers  and the hard work begin, they tend to look all hollow eyed and vacant as they move about their day.   Kind of Walking Dead, SMU style.

The Spring Garden route, the #1, tends to be all  business.   Much like the 80 with its cross section of people, the #1 seems to exist to solely get people from A to B, as quickly and as efficiently as possible.  (Which, in theory, all transit systems should be,  but if you think that, you don’t know Halifax Regional Municipality Transit).  People have no time for pleasant chats or leisurely neighborhood detours on this route.  Just take me on the lean mean streets and get me there.  Fast.  But despite it’s business like demeanor, I’ve found over the years that the #1, over all routes,  has the majority of personnel problems.  For one, it’s often home to a small number of first year sorority girls making their way from the Halifax Shopping Centre to the residence at Dalhousie, and almost inevitably when these pretty girls gather so too will some  late twenties out of work still living in their mama’s basement and yet still doesn’t know how to wash dude comes along and starts hitting on them.  Hard.  Because, you know, that’s just who these girls would want to take home to their mamas.  Uusally it starts out friendly enough.  Sometimes one of the girls might be even a bit flirty.  But eventually the ick factor kicks in as these old enough to know better “grown men” won’t take no for an answer from these not so worldly but playing hard at being a grown up little girls.  One late afternoon last winter I had to hop off the bus near the university with these two tearful and shaken young ladies as these Prince Charmings  that had targeted them had decided their version of flirting would involve “hey baby, how’d you like to lick my lollipop?.    As one girl burst into tears, the men started laughing and I heard the other say in a shaky voice as firmly as she could “you better stop following us!”   Standing as tall as I could (I’m only 5’9″, so it’s an effort), crossing my arms, puffing my chest out,  and pulling my Ray Bans down just a little, I said in as deep a voice as I  could muster “Is there a problem here?”  I watched as the stupid one exchanged glances with the even stupider one, and said “um, no officer, no problems at all!” before they ran off in the other direction. Yeah, that’s what I thought.   (Hey!  If the crew cut and the sunglasses and the stance say police officer to some, and perhaps keeps ’em from being a menace to society, who am I to judge??)

Of course, as much I wanted to shake those guys in that situation, sometimes I want to shake the girl.  But by that I mean in the “what the hell are you thinking? category.  I watch this young couple get on the bus most mornings, the girl saddled down with a backpack and a few bags while he chats on his cell phone.  The girl is model thin and well dressed, with shiny straight brown hair and a small smattering of acne across her otherwise pretty face. The guy is bigger, a bit sloppily dressed, with a bad haircut, wearing possibly the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen, making his eyes huge and round behind them.  After laughing much too loudly with the person on the other end, he snatches one of the lunch bags and proceeds to criticize everything packed within.  “Who packed cheese and crackers?  I hate cheese and crackers”  he growls.  “I didn’t realize I put it in there, sorry” she says, in a small voice.  Not even hearing what she says, he goes on “well if it’s only the two of us and I didn’t pack it, then clearly you did, right?  Right?”  Because, you know, this clearly is and important point to argue.  As she tries to change the subject and talk about something interesting she’s learned in her last biology class, he ignores her and launches into a diatribe about how his job at the call centre makes him more valuable and contributing member to society then her wasting her time at school and “sucking on the government tit with those student loans”,  instead of working an honest job like he does.   Besides, he says, once he gets that promotion it’s all  “smooth sailing” for him from here on out,  as he waves his hand in front of her face to signify his sailing ship.

It takes every single ounce of strength I have not to send him sailing out the window.

Worse, I have to literally sit on my hands and bite my lip HARD to stop myself from grabbing her by the shoulders and shouting “Dear God Woman!  You’re beautiful, you’re smart, you can do soooooo much better!  I mean never mind just listening to the idiot, but have you SEEN him????”

I’d share more stories, but I think I better run and catch the #17.  IF it decides to show that is…

But never fear, I’m sure I’ll return to this subject.  Buses and the hearty folk who ride them provide endless opportunities for story telling.  We’re talking ENDLESS.



Grand Parade Square

I’ve had a couple of encounters with Halifax’s Mayor Peter Kelly over the years.  The first was at a local elementary school, during its annual Health & Wellness fair.  I was there in part to provide information to parents, teachers, and community members about resources and mental health services offered here in our fair city.  You know, that pesky day job that takes me away from all the writing I should be doing.   A colleague and I were told by the organizers that Mr. Kelly planned to attend (and who, coincidentally it seemed, was running for re-election at the time), and was interested in chatting with us, hearing a bit more about the type of work we do and the families we work with.  The press was there as well, most notably a camera crew from Global.   My co-worker was excited about all the fuss, and laughed about the possibility of meeting Mayor Kelly and perhaps getting our picture taken for the newspaper.  As the mayor made his way into the gymnasium, he walked a short distance before stopping to chat with a pretty blonde nutritionist, a number of smiling youngsters in tow.  The cameras rolled, the lightbulbs flashed, and the moment was caught for prosperity.  Then, as the cameras were packing up to leave, the very MINUTE the press in attendance waked out the door, I overheard him say to an organizer “well, look at the time.  Seems I must go!”  And with that he made a quick dash through the gym, slapping at hands as he went past (mine included), kind of like a rock star leaving a stage after a concert except – well, Mister Kelly’s no rock star.

Concerts for Cash Scandal

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Storytelling is defined by Wikipedia (that oft-times questionable but yet still vastly knowledgeable source of all things definitive like) as the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment….Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and…to instill moral values.”

I like to think of myself as a storyteller, back from the very moment I could grasp a pencil in hand, and perhaps even before then. ( I mean….I can’t really say where an idea for a story comes from, but it has to come from somewhere, before it’s pulled, all raw material just waiting to be molded, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the “real world”). And in this act of storytelling, like all good storytellers I suppose, I hope to entertain, engage, perhaps titillate, and, in this case, through this medium, provide what I’d like to think is an informed opinion or two on those matters, things and events important and of interest to me, and I hope, in return, to you.

During the recent Word On The Street festival in Halifax, a national book and magazine festival celebrating reading and advocating literacy, my partner Shawn and I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize Winning Author of “Light Lifting”. Now truth be told I’d only come across MacLeod fairly recently, when the Giller Prize nominees were first announced…and “Light Lifting” seemed only the latest rave amongst ever-expanding East Coast book offerings that continue to gain a wide audience and a well deserved national spotlight. And if MacLeod’s leading a charge, he has an entire army behind him…a new generation of writers who are paving the way through this Atlantic Canadian Literary landscape, with stories filled with humor and drama and emotion and pathos and beauty that could only come from our rugged country and coastline. This impressive list of new literary heroes (and heroines) includes great new talent like Chad Pelley (Away From Everywhere), Michael Winter (The Death of Donna Whalen), Kathleen Winter (Anabel), Christy Lee Conlin (Heave), Ami MacKay (The Birth House), Sheree Fitch (Kiss The Joy As It Flies), Lisa Moore (Alligator), Jessica Grant (O Come Thou Tortoise) and Chris Benjamin (Drive By Saviours – and I mean, seriously,aren’t those last two just totally awesome titles or what? ). And happily, that list could go on and on. All unique new voices, all exciting and masterful in their command of time and place, mood and language, atmosphere and tone…and, in my own writing, I can only someday hope to equal their talent, enthusiasm, and expertise.

But Alexander, a distinctly talented author in his own right, comes by an auspicious pedigree of his very own, one not shared by the others….He is the son of the legendary Alistair MacLeod, THE literary giant from the hills of Cape Breton, who’s short story collections “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” and “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun and Other Stories” I – along with thousands and thousands of other students – had dissected in loving detail throughout junior high and high school english classes, and then later went on to study in more detail in Contemporary Twentieth Century fiction during my English majoring days at Dalhousie University. So meeting the son of this literary idol of mine was a bit of a surreal moment, and one I was more than a bit star struck by. (But then again, it’s not everyday you get to hang out in front of a wooden boat by the Maritime Museum chatting to one Alexander MacLeod of THE MacLeods, now is it?) But before that moment when I struggled to put two words together (and can we just say THAT never happens?), I had the opportunity to listen to Alexander talk about growing up in this famous family. And as I listened to this bright, funny, insightful, and handsome man tell a tale or two of his upbringing, I was struck by how much this life he described sounded so typical of any Cape Breton family. (I actually told him I thought meeting him would be like talking to royalty, but hey, what do you know? It seems he’s like everybody else.) And when later I was….you know…hanging by a wooden boat, talking to the son of Alistair MacLeod… Shawn asked if he knew who his father was growing up, if he lived some sort of life one might expect of a son of a writer type. And to this he replied….no, not at all. That, in fact, no one who entered his family home would ever have guessed his dad was a writer. That there were rarely books about, that his parents rarely even read to their children, and that he and his siblings shared a love of sports, food , music, laughter and good times with both friends and family, all those good things that most good families share, Cape Breton or otherwise. But how could this be? His dad’s a world renowned master of his craft, who wrote stories that shaped and defined in many ways the hearts and minds of students in classrooms all across our country. But then again, what did I expect? A reading jacket and smoking pipe in some old world library,with rows upon rows of shiny books, all with that new book smell, and perhaps a sign saying “Shhhhh! Genius at work!”… You can see how my imagination might run wild with it.

However, just because it wasn’t a houseful of academics and scribes didn’t mean the ancient traditions of storytelling weren’t alive and well within his family. In fact, Alexander went on to describe how everyone back in his childhood community was a true storyteller within his or her right. You see, growing up in rural Cape Breton, the act of visiting your neighbors was an active and expected and oft encouraged past time. But if you went all the way to visit someone, often miles and miles of road in not so pleasant weather, and they went all the way to prepare a huge meal and pour a drink to welcome you, well, as a trade-off, you had better have a story. And that story had better be a good story, told with punctuations of wild laughter and broad humour or high drama and dark intrigue. And so these tales were woven, tales from the past of fishermen and hunters and farmers, or of things just glimpsed and imagined, of what wonders might lay just around the corner. Gossips of budding romances or dying love affairs. Of children born out-of-wedlock or loved ones taken too soon. Of far exotic places, the bustle of some big city life, or the quiet solitude of small town living. Regardless, these stories were told, and passed on, around campfires and kitchen tables, backyards to playing fields, entire generations of storytellers, weaving all the magic and wonders of everyday life that they so artfully described.

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